Geoff Dyer’s Not Books

Four or five years ago I was wandering around Bristol when I saw someone who looked like Geoff Dyer walking up the street. I knew it couldn’t be Dyer because he lived in Los Angeles, but scurried up behind this lookalike, overtook him and walked by again, this time trying to get a closer look. It was him, of course.

He was there to promote his latest book White Sands – I soon discovered he’d be in Waterstones later that day giving a talk, so I went along. I’ve followed Dyer’s career for many years. I’d heard him on the radio reading from one of his earliest books, a novel, The Search. The book was disappointing, a bit flat, but nevertheless Dyer’s voice, his take on things had stayed with me, so when he started to find his feet as a non-fiction writer, I soon followed. And I loved what he wrote. Out of Sheer Rage is a sort of non-biography of DH Lawrence. Dyer is researching Lawrence, has an advance, a deadline, but he can’t get the book finished, so instead writes a book about not writing a book. Dyer is very good at not doing things. Hence the title of a later book Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It.

In the spirit of Dyer I didn’t buy a signed copy of White Sands and still don’t own a copy. It was serialised as Radio Four’s Book of the Week, I’d also picked it up several times in bookshops to flick through it. There’s a chapter on not seeing the Northern Lights. It was another book of nots. So I was not buying it.

Last week Dyer turned up in Bath to promote his new book The Last Days of Roger Federer which, as Dyer was keen to explain, is not a book about tennis. This is a book about endings, but not abrupt endings, but declines. How someone’s decline sets in long before things end completely. It’s a book about finitude. About ageing, and about time. The book is 86,400 words long, the same number as there are seconds in a day. Nietzsche, for example, lived long after his madness set in, and Bob Dylan, according to Dyer, still makes records long after he has since being any good at all.

So is Dyer in decline too? He admits to feeling a bit creaky: he plays tennis but his knee is messed up. He had a mild stroke some years ago (he mentioned it at the Bristol talk), but his mind seems still capable of pinpoint accuracy. He is extremely funny, most of his books are smart but some are hilarious too, and in Bath he talked for almost an hour and his performance was worthy of stand up. Certainly funnier than Ricky Gervais’ Supernature.

I bought a signed copy of The Last Days of Roger Federer but like many of my signed first editions, I won’t read it. I’ll keep it on my shelf, out of the sunlight, and it’ll stay there until my last days when my son or daughter will come and throw it in a box and take it to a charity shop.

Leave a Comment

Filed under books, writers, writing

What We Can Learn from Germany

Go into any bookshop in the UK and look in the German history section – the vast majority of books are related to World War Two – there is almost nothing on German post war reconstruction, or the origins of the state. Britain’s inability to see beyond the war has prevented us from learning from German success, and their achievements are, of course, very many. From the arts, the sciences, manufacturing, Germany is a world power: Adidas, Aldi, Audi, Bach, Beethoven, BMW, Bosch, Dr Martens, Einstein, Lidl, Mercedes, Porsche, the printing press, Puma, Wagner. Alexander Von Humboldt has more animals and places named after him than anyone else. Heard of him? Why not?

William Hershel discovered the planet Uranus from his back garden in Bath. I spend much of my time in that city and am struck by how few of the residents have heard of him or know there is a museum there dedicated to the man, his equally famous sister and their discoveries. Hershel, like Humboldt may be less than well known because they were German. And the British, particularly the English, have a bit of thing about Germans. (When England play Germany at football commentators always refer to the two countries having a rivalry, but I’m pretty sure it’s one way – the Germans don’t think about the English anything like as much.)

John Kampfner’s Why the Germans Do It Better is a great book with a terrible title. Kampfner is in awe of  the Germans, but not so much that the book avoids being critical.

If the Germans are more successful than the rest of Europe and particularly the UK it maybe because their economy is distributed, geographically and productively. 80% of Germany’s GDP comes from family businesses. And two thirds of these businesses are in places with fewer than 50,000 inhabitants. Compare this to the UK, where we are a predominantly service based economy. One astonishing fact exemplifies the difference between Germany and other major economies: Berlin is the only capital city where GDP per capita is lower than the rest of the country.

Germany was unified in 1871, before then it was made up of the states of the Holy Roman Empire, each with its own prince, or elector, its own identity. This maybe one origin of Germany’s more distributed economy. German unification came too late for any major colonial influence, the country did not grow rich on the proceeds of the slave trade. The Germans had to create their own wealth. Germany introduced compulsory education sixty years earlier than the UK and by the early 1800s had fifty universities compared to just Oxford and Cambridge in England. (Scotland was also ahead of England in this respect). The printing press was invented by Gutenberg in Mainz – in 1785 Germany circulated 1,225 periodicals and by 1913 more books were published annually in Germany (31,051 titles) than any other country in the world. In 1900 illiteracy was lower in Germany than France or the UK – all these factors led to the creation of an educated middle class, and in turn helped give rise to the family businesses that fuel the German economy. German law requires significant employee representation on the supervisory boards of large companies. Germany has many faults: its obsession with cars and coal, successive coalition governments that are often slow to act, huge, disastrous, infrastructure projects (the Tempelhof Airport) and a less than world class banking system. But if the UK (and particularly England) can learn from Germany then we must all put the past behind us and maybe think of the country as a friend rather than as a rival.

Comments Off on What We Can Learn from Germany

Filed under blogs, books, history, politics

The Georgian Star

The Hershel Museum sits in a quiet street of terraced houses just outside the centre of Bath. I’ve passed it many times, seen the modest plate that marks it. In the back garden of this house, in 1781, William Hershel, musician, church organist, composer of symphonies and amateur astronomer, discovered the planet Uranus. Hershel was from Hanover, but left his home to escape conscription and was soon joined in England by his sister Caroline. The reigning monarch, King George III, was also from Hanover, so Hershel wanted to name his new planet George, or ‘the Georgian Star’. Despite not succeeding in this, the king appointed Hershel his court astronomer, and in the years to come, Hershel was to build a telescope, in Slough, so huge that it remained the biggest in the world for fifty years.

The discovery of Neptune, in 1846 has, to some extent, obscured Hershel’s achievement, and minimised the profound effect it must have had on contemporary thinking. Uranus was the first planet to be discovered in modern times. Each of those already discovered is visible to the naked eye and were known even to the Babylonians. Neptune’s discovery doubled the size of the solar system, and, at the same time, made Earth, and thus all the achievements of humanity, shrink down to tiny speck, just one more, orbiting our Sun. Furthermore Hershel recognised that some of what were thought of as nebulae, clouds of cosmic dust, were other galaxies, and the recognition of this could only serve to reduce the sense of humanity’s importance, and maybe question belief in a deity.

Hershel’s first obsession was cataloguing double stars – pairs of stars which appear to be close; some of these he recognised as being binary stars, a term and distinction which is still in use today. Meanwhile his sister, who at first accepted the role of his assistant, noting down his observations in the light of the kitchen while he sat at his telescope in the garden, began her own quest, and today is celebrated for her work on comets, one of which bears her name.

Leave a Comment

Filed under blogs, science

Octopus Consciousness

Consider this: an octopus has one central brain and possibly eight smaller brains, each for the independent control of its limbs. It also has skin that reacts to colour changes in the environment even though the octopus cannot see colour itself. How? Its skin can see. Therefore it’s possible that the octopus has several forms of consciousness operating independently. Maybe the limbs communicate with each other, and thus the octopus has three levels of awareness: the central brain, the limbs and the skin. All this is explored in Peter Godfrey-Smith’s  dazzling ‘Metazoa’, a book which blew both my minds, particularly when Godfrey-Smith considers the consciousness of the octopus in light of experiments on split brain patients. Then things get very weird. If, after surgery, or damage, a patient’s brain has weak communication between its two halves, then the patient may recognise objects, but not be able to name them. Such patients live in a world that is separated into things and their names, and somehow the two never quite hold together. It is only by what Godfrey-Smith calls ‘switching’ that the patient can function – the patient must learn to switch perception from one side of the brain to the other: the vigilant right brain flips to the more forensic left. ‘In a wide range of animals, the left side of the brain specialises in identifying food, the right has an aptitude for social relations and threats.’ Maybe all humans use ‘switching’, one moment concentrating, focusing, the next, vigilant, open to new impressions. (Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary‘  explores this subject in great depth).  Could the octopus do something similar – switch its focus from central brain to its limbs, or even to its skin? ‘Metazoa’ is a book about consciousness, or perhaps subjectivities. Bees ‘are masters of logical abstraction’, insects and slugs have emotions, fish can count and even discriminate different genres of music, cuttlefish dream, rats hatch plans. With such intelligence in life forms we may have assumed were lacking in complexity, maybe its time to reconsider our attitude to all other beings, and accept that although humans may be more destructive, we aren’t so special after all.

Leave a Comment

Filed under books, science

Knausgaard’s End

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s huge six volume series My Struggle concludes with a gigantic 1100 page bruiser of a book, aptly title The End. Knausgaard’s writing has been termed ‘auto-fiction’ – his books tell the story of his life, all characters are real people, but unlike a conventional biography, this is life in all its maddening, repetitive detail. I’d like to be able to compare it with minimalist music, but at least that can have some beauty. Knausgaard’s six novels are crudely written, dwell on his insecurities and are dense with endless, insignificant minutiae. He pours coffee, smokes cigarette after cigarette. He worries, makes tedious trips to the shops and the park, stares out of windows. And yet there is something else happening here. It’s as if we’re trawling through our own lives, but with an intensity of focus on all the trivia: cooking sausages, loading the dishwasher, remembering the colour and smell of children’s clothes, the feel of warm rooms in summer, of cold streets in winter. Knausgaard creates a vivid reality, he seems to have an acute visual memory, seems to hold details of moments from decades ago that the rest of us have forgotten. In this last book he attempts to rationalise his obsession with the banal: in a long digression on the power of language in the rise of the Nazis, Knausgaard rejects reaching beyond the quotidian, elevating the world to something more than it is. There is desire for what is authentic, for what matters, for the human world. This is why, he seems to be saying, I have filled five volumes with getting up, making breakfast, doing the laundry, and, in this last book, worrying what others he has written about will think of him. He has a hyper-vigilance, a tension, a constant anxiety. When it’s remembered that book one of the series describes his father’s death, stirring up Knausgaard’s hatred for the man he regards as a thug, then there is some explanation for this vigilance: since he can remember, Knausgaard was bullied and beaten by his father. Many passages recall him waiting to hear his father come home, terrified what mood he would be in. These are novels of fear, of a lifelong insecurity, and although there is love and laughter here too, there is an overwhelming sense of man battling to be free. This, then, is his struggle.

Leave a Comment

Filed under books, writers, writing

Searching for Mary and Jane

I’m working on an idea for a play, or ‘noise opera’, ‘Mary and Jane‘ – in which I imagine them meeting in the handsome streets of Georgian Bath. Jane Austen lived in the city from 1801- 1806, Shelley arrived just over ten years later. Austen’s stay there has been described as creatively fallow, whereas it was in Bath that Shelley completed her manuscript of Frankenstein.

Austen novels seem to offer infinite interpretation, yet the author is largely a mystery. We might try and find her in her writing, but her technique of ‘free indirect’ speech, loading her third person prose with the thoughts of her characters, makes it difficult. We might like to assume that some of her character’s views represent hers, but we can never know. There is little of contemporary events in her novels (even though a close relative was guillotined in the French Revolution), almost nothing of the Napoleonic Wars, nor any scrutiny of how her wealthy men made their money. There is only a very vague sense of the country on the verge of the dramatic changes which would be triggered by the industrial revolution. Mary, younger by over twenty years, has one foot in the future. Whereas Austen’s novels seem almost pre-industrial,  Shelley is firmly in the modern world: electricity, evolution, exploration, the romantic individual, these are all starkly evident in Frankenstein. Shelley left us her journals, Austen only her novels, (her sister Cassandra destroyed her letters).

Shelley’s politics cannot be doubted: she was the daughter of two radicals, her mother was, arguably, one of the first feminist philosophers. Austen can be all things to all readers, indeterminate, open to endless speculation, seen by some critics as a ‘conservative propagandist’ and yet, by stressing her characters have an intelligence and a rationality equal to any man, she too can be viewed as a feminist icon. But I know neither that well, and my search continues.

Leave a Comment

Filed under blogs, books, history, mary and jane, writers

Mary and Jane

I’ve just had a revelation, a moment of inspiration, an epiphany. It started as a vague discomfort, a niggle, the feeling something needed to be put right. I was on a walking tour of Bath, a literary walk, during which I discovered that Mary Shelley wrote most of Frankenstein in that city.

Frankenstein was published in 1818, a year after Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. Austen’s association with Bath is probably better known, one reason for this is that the great and the good of Bath, for some reason, denied any commemoration of Shelley’s work – probably because they knew her creation as the flat headed giant portrayed by Boris Karloff, a scar across his head, a bolt through his neck. Bath, it seems, would rather brand itself as the city of Jane Austen, of refined good manners, of the Pump Rooms and Bridgerton than of anything to do with Hammer Horror. The tour took us to some of the places associated with Mary and husband Percy Shelley, as well as her stepsister Clair Clairmont who, at the time, was living with another poet, Byron.

Something about this story stayed with me, but I wasn’t sure what it was, until a few weeks later when I realised: it was the thought that Mary Shelley and Jane Austen could have crossed paths. Mary’s book fizzes with electricity and ideas of the age, of evolution, a rage against creation, Austen’s belongs in a much earlier age. But they are similar in so many ways: precocious, smart, producing work at a prodigiously young age.  Mary was very dismissive of novels, and Jane died a year before Frankenstein was published, but I want to put the two in a room together, maybe have them sitting down to tea and cakes, and see how they get on. And now it’s become an obsession. Two years ago I took my ‘noise opera’ about Arthur Machen to the Edinburgh Festival. And now I have a new project: to produce and perform ‘Mary and Jane’, even though, as yet, it is no more that a niggle, an itch, a series of notes on a scrap of paper and have no idea what it will become. At the same time I quite like the idea of recording its development here, from vague first idea, to finished show.

To give the idea some sort of tangible existence, I wrote a short story, it’s here.

Postscript: Bath has since relented on its willingness to commemorate Shelley, maybe because the old movies no longer eclipse the book to the extent that they once did. A plaque has been placed in front of the Pump Rooms and a new  ‘immersive experience’ is about to open in the city: ‘Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein’. Truly horrific.

Leave a Comment

Filed under blogs, mary and jane, theatre, writers

The Smile Revolution

The Smile Revolution is very niche. Think of a niche as a shallow recess: an orifice. This is the subject of this oddly compelling book.

King Louis XIV sat on the French throne for seventy two years, the longest reign of any crowned head in Europe. He was the ‘Sun King’, an absolute monarch who transformed France into a great power. Versailles, once a hunting lodge, became the centre of his empire and one of the largest palaces in the world. Louis’ influence was profound, his every word and gesture considered, discussed, imitated. Louis, unlike his predecessors, did not wear a beard, and in his forties lost all his teeth. Clean shaven, and with a puckered mouth, Louis avoided smiling and if the king frowned, the frown became a fashion statement. Smiling was considered ‘an affectation which artists, connoisseurs and people of good taste are unanimous in condemning.’

When Louis needed significant and painful surgery to remove an anal fistula, courtiers approached their doctors complaining of a similar ailment, and many expressed profound disappointment to be told they did not need treatment. After Louis’ death and the rise of professional dentistry, smiling was less frowned upon. Tooth pulling was theatre, the poor were often paid for their teeth, battlefield corpses were often robbed of their teeth for dentures. Soon sufficient progress was made for dentistry to accept that teeth could be saved from the pliers. Smiling not only revealed your sensibility, it demonstrated you were wealthy enough to afford dental treatment.

But the country grew restless and ‘the Terror’, the bloodbath that followed the revolution of 1789, wiped away a generation of progressives. Antoine Lavoisier, the pioneering chemist, went to the guillotine. So did many dentists. France was once again plunged into dental darkness and the smile would remain unfashionable and uncouth for over a century.

Leave a Comment

Filed under history

A World in Which Nothing is Blue

Does language determine how we think?

In Dennis Villeneuve’s 2016 film, Arrival, aliens visit the Earth with a gift to mankind: their language. By learning this language, one of the protagonists begins to see the future as a memory. This, one of the characters explains, supports the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that language determines how we perceive the world.

Although many have questioned the claims of the hypothesis, and to some extent it is no longer taken seriously, there is still merit in examining the idea, which is explored directly in Guy Deutscher’s ‘Through the Language Glass’ and indirectly in Lisa Feldman Barrett’s ‘How Emotions are Made.’

Deutscher’s book begins with a long exploration of colour. William Gladstone, before becoming British Prime Minister, devoted many years to his three volume ‘Studies On Homer’. One of his most astonishing observations is that Homer does not refer to the colour blue. So the question arises, and this is central to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: if Homer had no word for blue, was he unable to perceive the colour? Homer describes the sea as ‘wine dark’, but then sheep are violet, honey is green. According to Gladstone, Homer’s colours were not facts but images, and maybe the use of green to describe honey was to convey a sense of it being fresh, like a newly snapped twig. The sea is dark, forbidding. The ‘unharvestable sea’.

Nevertheless, nothing, in Homer, is blue.

In 1898, the year that Gladstone died, W.H.R. Rivers, anthropologist and psychiatrist, while studying the people of the Murray Islands, off the coast of Australia, discovered that although they had no word for blue (they described the sea as ‘black’) they could differentiate colours as well as anyone else. Thus the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was refuted.

But Deutscher’s book takes the reader along a clever path, first demonstrating that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is ‘ludicrous’, and how could anyone seriously entertain such nonsense, but then slowly pulls us back to a point on that path where it may have some substance after all, the most astonishing example being the Aborigine speakers of Guugu Yimithirr. This language does not use egocentric coordinates as we do, but geographic coordinates. Guugu Ymithirr has no words for ‘left’ and ‘right’ and doesn’t use ‘in front of’ or ‘behind’. Instead speakers use the cardinal points north, south, east and west. Instead of saying ‘John is in front of the tree’, they would say ‘John is north of the tree’. This means, of course, that they must always know where north, south, east and west are. And they do. They have, as Deutscher terms it ‘a perfect pitch’ for direction.

So, is it because they speak a particular language they are more likely to have this ‘perfect pitch’? If so, this may uphold Sapir-Whorf.

Deutscher’s book is wonderful. He leads you to agree an argument, then shows you how wrong you were to trust him. Towards the end of the book he explores ‘Russian blues’. Russian has a word for ‘light blue’ (goluboy) and ‘dark blue’ (siniy). Do Russians see these colours more distinctly because of these words? Well, yes, it seems they do, again supporting the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

But what we’re left with is a very diluted form of the hypothesis, language does affect how we see the world. A little. Maybe not much.

If Deutscher comes to any conclusion he states it first in quoting Franz Boas: ‘Languages differ essentially in what they must convey not in what they may convey.’ And his own pithy maxim: ‘culture enjoys freedom within constraints’.

Meanwhile Lisa Feldman Barrett’s ‘How Emotions are Made’ explores similar territory but with specific attention to the language of emotions. Her theory of ‘constructed emotion’ is interesting, although, compared with Deutscher’s book, her book is woolly, overlong and burdened with too much speculation. Feldman Barrett suggests that emotions do not exist, are social constructs, and ‘each of us needs an emotion concept before we can experience or perceive that emotion.’

This, I think, is central to her argument. Find a word to describe your inner state, and that inner state will be isolated, understood. Most emotions are the result of this, but what is being isolated is not necessarily something physical, but a senstation simplified because it corressponds to what is socially agreed. ‘Culture is a cohesive set of mental representations.’

Norwegians have ‘Forelsket’ the intense joy of falling in love; Russians ‘Tocka’ or spiritual anguish. And the Japanese have ‘Age-otori’ – the feeling of looking worse after a haircut. These emotions may not be unknown to English speakers, but they are more elusive. Nevertheless, she argues, they are all socially constucted and when a word is allocated to them, they have a new reality.

What Feldman Barrett advocates is a scepticism of simplistic emotional termniology, while, at the same time, exploration of a greater granulartiy of language will give us more access to our inner states, and therefore a deeper understanding of ourselves.

Leave a Comment

Filed under books, language, words

The Original Druidic Orchestra of Mediolanum

Graham Robb’s book ‘The Ancient Paths’ so confused and entertained me, my only response was not to attempt a critical review, but to create a series of improvisations.

The book suggests that the ancient Gauls created a road network which ran across what is now modern France, a network which was subsequently obliterated by the Romans. This in itself is contentious enough, but then Robb goes on to speculate that these roads ran in the direction of the rising and setting sun at the summer and winter solstices.

He pinpoints place names that reflect the location of ancient paths, for example any ‘middle hill’ – a station that would have been used to plot the roads, so, for example, we get Mediolanum, the Roman name for Milan.

Robb also describes the Nemetons, the Druidic temples, showing how none of them are perfectly rectangular, all slightly askew. These were based on the elliptic, the sun’s apparent journey around the zodiac. Of course!

The book verges on being so speculative it is a work of rich fantasy, but no less enjoyable for all that. So, as I said, I don’t really have the time to pick apart his arguments, even in this tenth week of Lockdown, so instead composed a series of short musical pieces.

And here they are:

The Original Druidic Orchestra of Mediolanum

Leave a Comment

Filed under books, history, music, writing